Ben Williams takes a look at the policies of US presidential candidates regarding climate change.The two terms in office served by President Bush could hardly have been more damaging to the environment. Clearly the world’s current situation cannot be solely attributed to one man and one country, far from it. However the USA, as the hegemonic power in international relations, certainly has a greater ability to affect the trajectory of global climate policy than any other state. As the global leader, the example set by the USA will be followed by other countries, and of course it is impossible to reach an effective inter-state agreement on climate policy without the support of the world’s predominant power.Not only is the USA vital in influencing the policies of other states, but the emissions of the USA alone constitute a large percentage of global greenhouse gas output. America produces 22.2% of the world’s carbon emissions. China is catching up at a ferocious rate, now accountable for 18.4% of emissions, although it has a population nearly 4 times the size of the USA. That its emissions are still below the levels of the Americans demonstrates that the USA is still by far the biggest polluter in the world proportionally as well as in total output. Indeed the statistics for per capita emissions support this statement. Each person in America emits on average close to 19.5 tonnes of CO2 per year. Again, this is a world-leading total and is nearly 3 tonnes ahead of the next highest proportional polluter, Australia.The USA is now also the only major country still not to have ratified the Kyoto treaty after Australia’s newly elected prime minister ratified it immediately after taking office. Clearly then, America is by far the world’s most polluting state. The waves of anti-Americanism that seem so salient in recent years are not without foundation when it comes to climate policy. It may sometimes seem as though the USA is used as a scapegoat upon which blame for the problem of global warming is placed, and perhaps its poor record is used to distract us from our own inaction. Still, there is no doubt that America is deserving of its poor reputation on climate action. Yet there is reason to hope now, as the Bush years finally draw to a close. Irrevocable damage has already been done to the environment, but the worst consequences of climate change can still be prevented and the policies of the presidential candidates seem to acknowledge this. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have both co-sponsored the most stringent carbon cap bill in the Senate. They also want an 80% reduction in emissions from 1990 levels by 2050 as well as the introduction of a cap and trade system whereby carbon credits are introduced and those companies that emit above the limits of their credits are forced to buy credits from companies that emit below them. Republican candidate John McCain also supports this system of carbon trading and wants the capping of greenhouse-gas emissions at 2004 levels by 2012 and then reducing them by 65 percent by 2050.Clinton has gone further by supporting a controversial shake-up of oil companies whereby a proportion of their windfalls would have to be transferred to investment in renewable energy. She would also like to see 20% of US energy demands met by renewable energy resources by 2020 and has promised to invest $50 billion into research and development of renewable energy and clean coal technology, and new methods of achieving energy efficiency.How many of these promises are pre-election rhetoric to win the ‘green vote’ is debatable. That both Obama and Clinton’s main emissions reduction targets are the same for instance is more than a little coincidental. It should also be noted that environmental issues, whilst becoming more important to the American voter, are far from being given precedence over issues such as Iraq and immigration. What is clear, and promising, is that whoever becomes the next US president does consider climate change to be an issue worth tackling and that all candidates have set ambitious promises. While there is no guarantee they will be kept, it does show recognition of the need for urgent action. This has not been the case in the Oval Office before.What is most ironic about the whole situation is that it is the failed presidential candidate from 8 years ago who is most responsible for making climate change an issue is deemed important enough to be included in the policy objectives of the current presidential candidates. Al Gore’s contribution to raising the profile of climate issues might be populist and sensationalist, but it is the most important one that has been made to the American populace. Perhaps, if he had gained a few hundred more votes in Florida, Al Gore would never have become the climate activist that he is today. He certainly wouldn’t have made ‘An Inconvenient Truth’. At least then, through the election of the unyielding Bush, something good came out of it – if only for the environment. This might finally bear fruit when the new most powerful man or woman in the world is elected come November.
COMMENT: Climate Change and the US